Try to conceive nothingness.
It is not the modern physical concept of the vacuum, full of energy, and giving rise to ephemeral virtual particle/anti-particle pairs. Nor it is like a blank panorama, something like a flat space-time devoid of matter, since there is no energy, no time, no space, and no mind -- for whatever definition it is worth --, since even self-conception is not allowed for nothingness.
Nothingness stands more elusive than the concept of God. It reigns separate from any possible concept or entity, it is devoid of any realization -- even of itself; it does not belong to anywhere nor anytime to "this world" (or to any other possible world) -- yet, to our intellect it is "there" somehow.
Why exists everything, instead of nothingness? Nothingness should have been the rule. Or perhaps it is, but we do not realize it. We *do* wonder that, before being occasionally constituted into living forms, we *were* nothing, and when we die, we will be *nothing* again. But is it the same thing?
Perhaps, in fact, nothingness reigns. Perhaps, as paradoxical as it may seem, everything is in fact, nothingness revealed to us. And hence, there is no creation, but some odd, inconceivable delusion.
Those rather metaphysical questions bothered me for a long time since a very young age. Such questions do not belong to physics, but it seemed clear to me that, somehow, I could only understand them through science (and to a certain extent, through philosophy), but not through religion.
I mention religion because I was ten years old when I realized that, after staring, every week, during several years, half an hour or more at the image of Jesus Christ in a church of my school (I studied at a Catholic School), repeatedly and full-heartedly in my mind asking for Him to appear before me -- if he really existed --, and not receiving even a glimpse of response back, I could only conclude He did not exist. My intentions were the purest possible, and He never came. Why He would not come before me? I started to become more and more defiant in my requests, until I decided I would no longer pray before sleeping.
It was a hard time for a little girl, very shy, and scared to talk about these events to anyone else. I was very lonely in this mind endeavor, but it was not so terrible that it happened that way. At least, as I see it now.
I was (and am) exceedingly impressed by the fact that I exist, that the Universe exists, and this fact imparted on me, and perhaps substituted the common idea of God deep inside me for something else that even today I don't know what it is. Perhaps, it is nothing after all, but I do not know for now.
Back, during that time, I discovered science-fiction books, and consequently, popular science books. I would say I had two great teachers during this period: Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. From reading their books as a teenager, I decided to be a scientist.
It was and is hard to be a scientist for several reasons, but I will spare the reader from this. I will only mention two things that bothered me most for some time. First it was to find out that not every scientist was turned into a scientist for similar motivations that I had (I mean, the search for a deep understanding about nature). Second, that it is hard, very hard, to get a job as a scientist. Specially if you are too romantic and do not see why a large number of papers is "almost" all that makes a career (being very socially driven also helps a lot). My romantic view of science (that what matters is the value of your work and thoughts) is perhaps the most "misleading" and lasting impression that I carry from my childhood's conceptions and endeavors. We do get old and learn something about the "world out there" and adjust as time goes by. But the most important thing to me is to learn not to get corrupted and remain faithful to your own deep motivations.
So every question in fundamental physics concerns me, intrigues me, and it's unavoidably part of my own questionings. Many physicists would not agree on this and would have a much more impersonal posture and highly different motivations and aims. It is not that I think they are wrong (apart from those that look for stardom), but if I am to be entirely faithful to what I am and think, science goes beyond models, numbers, theories and even brilliant ideas. It is about a deep endeavor -- as Carl Sagan wrote once: it's about atoms thinking about atoms. And although we need models, numbers, theories and ideas to "think" over them, what matters at the end is the fact that nature is understandable at all -- as Einstein would add. To understand nature, even in our tiny human steps, requires exquisite intellectual conditions and a life effort of many minds.
Apart from the difficulties, I cannot think of any other activity as intellectually pleasant as the scientific research, except perhaps for music, to which I had devoted myself for some time (as a soprano). I did not chose a scientific career because I was good at maths and physics (I was average, and did much better in composition and arts: in fact, I wrote many science-fiction short stories and poems when I was younger and a SF book, unpublished, entitled "Laplace's Demon"). I chose it because I know of no other convincing and objective way that I could attempt to *understand* something about the Universe and about myself.
Having "acted mostly" as an astrophysicist until now, I really never contributed to the fundamental questions that so much bother me, since I only had the opportunity to look at some tiny details that nature uses to show us on the sky. All I hope is that I still have the time to put my whole energy into fundamental physics. That is my ongoing lifetime aim, even though I am largely unsure on what I really can achieve.
I did not go very far in terms of what many scientists consider as a successful career. If I had followed some prescribed path or formulae, perhaps I would have gone somewhat "far", but would have reached nowhere in terms of what I was initially motivated. And such a "nowhere" certainly would *not* be any closer to the "nothingness" that impelled me first of all! So, what can I say? I have been more or less faithful to myself and I am happy.
So here it is, a little about why I chose science as a career. This text, I would say, reflects the most abstract and nebulous part of my motivations, and just for this reason, I thought it was more interesting to focus on. Thanks, Sabine, for the challenging invitation.
Christine Dantas is a Brazilian astrophysicist working at the Instituto de Aeronáutica e Espaço. She is interested in foundational questions in physics and cosmology. Recently, she found out that she cannot really escape from the blogosphere, so gave in and set up a new blog, Theorema Egregium. She is married, mother of a lovely boy, and in her spare time, she listens to Bach and walks the dog.
See also the previous contributions to the inspiration-series by
and my related guest post at Asymptotia 'Sabine Hossenfelder: My Inspiration'.
TAGS: PHYSICS, PHYSICISTS